...En el Foc [...Into the Fire]

by Paula Stiles

Episode #317

Part One of Five

Disclaimers: Helm, Tessa, the regular characters and the Queen of Swords universe all belong to Fireworks. The song, "Protocol" is by Gordon Lightfoot and does not belong to me, either. OCs (including Roger Pirenne) and the story belong to me, with the exception of Don Caruso and Don Borges, who belong to their creator Maril Swan.

This is a sequel to Tesoro, and follows on from The Medical Inquisitor (QoS-VS Season Two) by John Fingerhut.


Who are these ones who would lead us now
To the sound of a thousand guns?
Who'd storm the gates of Hell itself
To the tune of a single drum?
Where are the girls of the neighborhood bars
Whose loves were lost at sea
In the hills of France and on German soil
From Saigon to Wounded Knee?
Who come from long lines of soldiers
Whose duty was fulfilled
In the words of a warrior's will
And protocol?

Catalonia, 1813

When I open my eyes again, it is afternoon. It's hot, light and heat shimmering over the dry green hills. Crickets buzz. I lie on my side in the middle of a copse of bushes. This is disturbing. I don't remember lying down, only running, with the girl. Where is the girl?

Oh, here she is, huddled into her father's coat, a warm bundle wrapped around my chest. I'm wearing the coat. I think, to her that makes me her father. It must be why I'm still breathing. Who would have thought that a little mistaken kindness would have just saved my throat from being cut? That son of a bitch of a Frenchie won't be playing with knives, anymore. I reckon he's learned his lesson, and it's all over my coat sleeve, signed in his blood.

I lift my head, which is a major mistake. I bite back a groan, more out of habit than anything else. The air is full of the scent of oranges. Oranges? Damn, we are still in the orchard, which is less than a mile away from that bloody cottage. I nudge the girl. She whines and snuggles against me in her sleep. I nudge her again. "Maria," I say in Catalan, fumbling for her name. "Let's go."

She wakes up slowly, as children do when they feel safe. My head is pounding, but I don't hit her and I don't even think about leaving her behind. I don't know why, I just don't. I have taken on the role of father to her, and now I am trapped inside it. "Wake up. Come on, come on, dammit."

When she does get up, though, she has to help me up. I can scarcely rise above my knees, let alone stand or walk. How the hell am I supposed to get myself and this girl back through enemy lines? "Come on. South. Show me how we can go south."

She clings to my hand as we stumble out of the bushes and through the orchard, trying to find a way. Gradually, I notice that she is leading me towards a corner of it, where the fence has a hole. Once I see that she knows where to go, I let her lead me. If we can just get out of this open area and further into the woods, just a little further south...and then we can lie down and sleep until night. Sleep forever.

No. I have to keep going. I pay my debts and this child got me out of a very dark hole. I owe her. She tugs on my hand, mouthing, "Vinga, vinga, papa," urging me into the brush. We slip through the broken gate. I cannot help but notice how sad the orchard looks, with crushed oranges on the ground and the trees looking wilted. I must be hurt worse than I thought, to be worrying about oranges, but then, it's my job to notice these things. The sometents will be getting more and more desperate as their crops fail and the French sit more heavily upon them. Wellington will want to know. I have precious little else to tell him. This mission has been a colossal failure.

We limp down the road. I pray I'll be able to make it into the woods. That half mile is probably the longest I have, or ever will, cross. Please, God, just let those be the only French in our area, the ones I killed. And what of that Spaniard who tried to stop them torturing me? What about him? There is something wrong, there, something I cannot quite place. Surely, he will send reinforcements after us. I cannot see his goodwill extending to letting me escape after murdering French soldiers with impunity. They would make him swing in my place.

When he steps out of the bushes from the side of the road, right in front of us, Maria gasps and tightens her grip on my hand. I stop, swaying. If my head did not ache so badly, I might drop dead from the shock, but I am far too gone for a fright.

He stands there, eyeing me. "You are going south?" he asks in good Catalan. I don't answer. He nods at the girl. "Taking her to safety?" I still don't answer. "Never mind," he says. "I will help you get there."

I squint at him. It is hard to see him in the heat and my head hurts. "Why?" I say.

"Because you are hurt," he says patiently, as if I were the child and not the little girl. He steps forward and reaches for my arm, the one with Frenchie's blood on it. I shy back from him, unslinging the rifle and bracing myself on the girl's shoulder.

"That's not a reason," I say, pointing the rifle at him.

The man stops. "Then this: the longer you stay out here, the more likely it is that they will find you and kill you. If you come with me, I will find you a good hiding place. Otherwise, you will be killed, and that poor little thing along with you."

Why does everyone keep assuming that I feel more affection for this brat than they would in my place? Do they think I've gone soft? It will take more than a few blows to the head to make me love children. Enough, Robbie. You're drifting. Back to the task at hand.

"Where is this hiding place?" I say.

He points across the field, which is planted with vines. Half of them have been scorched by fire. "There," he says. I look and nearly groan aloud when I see how far away "there" is. "Let's go, then," I say. The girl leads off without question. The Spaniard goes to support me on the other side, but I fend him off with my rifle. Desperation does not breed trust in this old soldier's brain. He shrugs and walks ahead, leading the way off the road. The girl and I limp after him. I only hope I'll be able to make it.

1820, Santa Elena

"What are you doing here, Pirenne?" I say. I don't care if the man did save my life that day in Catalonia. I still don't trust him for a second.

Pirenne shakes his head, looking hurt. "After all I have done for you, and you still don't trust me? Can this not be a happy coincidence, our meeting again?"

"Coincidence?" I snort in disbelief. "Santa Elena is a bit too much out of the way to accommodate those kinds of 'coincidences'."

Pirenne shrugs. "And yet, it does seem to accommodate you, mon ami anglais. Places like this, where men like you and me go to hide, contain the most interesting people."

Dammit. Here comes my headache again. It only seems fitting, considering that I had one the entire time of our acquaintance. Should I mention that I spent Christmas babbling to his ghost? No, best not to with this man. It would seem too much like weakness, though I was scarcely in better shape when he knew me. I retreat into the room, letting him follow me.

"I'm surprised you came looking for me, Roger, considering that the last time we saw each other, I was trying to kill you." I go to my desk and sit down, indicating for him to sit across from me. He settles into my patients' chair, rocking a bit with the grace that first gave him away to me.

He tilts his head to one side and grins. "Those were the rules of the game, non?" His face turns serious. "I did not lie about everything I told you in our short acquaintance, just as you were unable to lie about everything you told me. I am a surgeon." He glances over at my workbench. "I confess to being flattered by your current vocation."

"As you said, I didn't lie about everything I told you either," I reply, keeping my voice as even and pleasant as I can under the circumstances. "I was training to become an apothecary before the War."

He nods. "Then this," he indicates my workbench, "is not so hard to explain, is it?" He considers me. "Or the fact that you did not kill me after all? What happened to the girl?"

"How long do you plan to stay here, Pirenne?" I say, not interested in answering any of those questions.

"As I said before, mon ami, I intend to stay for some time." He smiles. "I feel certain that you won't mind another doctor in the area. I would think there would be more than enough work for two. But this is so impersonal, non? Perhaps we should go back to Christian names."

I glower at him, ignoring the dig at my supposed professional jealousy. "And which ones would be those? The ones we used then or the ones we use now?"

He rubs his beard. I see there is more gray in there than there was seven years ago. "The true ones, I would think, would be better since we will have to work together from now on. But if you like, I can go back to calling you 'Bernat' and you can go back to calling me 'Ramon'. Myself, I think it would confuse people, but if you don't mind..." he shrugs.

He has me there. The very last thing I want to explain to people here is what I did during the War--particularly in the brief, albeit busy, time that I knew Pirenne. I slouch in my chair. "I see. And are you admitting to the people here that you're French? I have to warn you--we just had a Frenchman come through here and it was all he could do to get out of town alive. Then again, he did confess to being a war criminal."

He looks down. "There would be few of those of us who were there who could confess to anything different, mon ami." I wince, remembering Ian Latham and his obsessively vengeful brother. And that was when I killed one of my own side. "You are right. I have been calling myself something different until now." He looks up and meets my gaze. "But I see you use your own name here."

I look away first. "The British aren't seen as the enemy in Alta California."

He chuckles. "You would not be so fortunate in France, je crois."

"Nor in my own country," I admit. "But I'm safe enough in Santa Elena." Most of the time, I don't add. This isn't a safe time to admit that.

"Nor in Cadíz, from what I have heard." Suddenly, the room darkens around me, just as in Montoya's office. It takes me a long moment to notice that Pirenne is watching me.

I lick dry lips with an equally parched tongue. "What?"

He props his head on one hand. "You are right, mon ami. My visit here is not a coincidence--not in the way that I told you. Three months ago, in Cuba, a young man named Pedro Malsano approached me in a bodega. He was looking for you and knew where to find you. I see you recognize the name."

"Yes. I do." I swallow. "I imagine you have heard his side of it."

He smiles wryly. "Oh, yes. Until I could recite it in my sleep. You are the serpent who poisoned his father and mother. So he has been told, at any rate."

"Why are you here?" I say.

"Because I know what you look like." He smiles. "And also, I suspect it is because young Don Malsano does not like to do his own dirty work. I think he expects me to kill you for him."

Act One

1813, Catalonia

"Drink this." I open my eyes as my head is lifted. The cup is full of wine--not good wine, but not horrible, either. Hearty, as they like to make it here. Here...where is here? I swallow, bringing my hand up feebly to the cup to tilt it further. My nurse obliges me. "Better?" he says when I've drained the cup. I nod and he lets me sink back onto the blanket.

He is speaking to me again, but I cannot understand him. After a moment, he stops, then says, "Which language, then? English?"

I am saved from betraying myself by a sudden urge to vomit. He holds some earthenware pot under my chin and lets me get on with it. When I finish, I fall back, exhausted as he pulls the pot away. I close my eyes, wanting only to sleep. I sense him crouching next to me, checking my pulse. "You sleep, then," he says, sounding almost kind. I cannot tell anymore which language he is using.

When I open my eyes, the girl is lying next to me again, sleeping. We are in some sort of stone hut with a dirt floor and a doorway but no door. The Spaniard is curled up at our feet, his coat pulled around him. Daylight has come again outside. We have lost at least a day. Christ, we have to go. I lift my head and groan aloud at the pain, in spite of myself. At my feet, the Spaniard lifts his head, waking. Not what I intended. The girl sleeps on.

"You should not be up," he says, again in English. Ignoring him, I force myself up onto one arm, my back leaning against a wall. Pebbles dig into my elbow. The pain slices through my head, blinding me. I don't even realize that I have groaned this time until he says, "I told you so." He shuffles over and pulls away the free hand that I have clamped over my eye. "Lie down," he says. I glare at him--or try to, at any rate. "Yes, I am speaking in English. You are English. The soldiers said so; we both know they were right. And you are too ill to understand anything else. Lie down."

Reluctantly, I obey him. He's right; it does feel better. "Why are you so worried?" he asks. "Where are you going?" I close my eyes, turning my head away. I feel my chin gripped and turned back. When I open my eyes, he is peering down at me. "Where are you going?"

I don't want to tell him, for all the obvious reasons. I cannot trust him. But if I don't tell him, I won't get out of here. He is right. I am too sick to sit up, let alone walk. I must trust him. I need him, at least as far as the coast. After that, he is a dead man. "A fishing boat," I say, feeling the words burn through me. "Near Tarragona."

He sits back on his heels and nods. "How long will they wait?"

"I don't know." It is the truth. If I stick to simple truths, I can bluff my way through this, at least long enough to get to Tarragona and either kill him or escape before he can talk. "Not long. We have to go."

He shakes his head. "You cannot go anywhere, now." I start to sit up again, but dizziness forces me back down. He puts a hand on my shoulder, pinning me to the ground. "I will see if we can find transport. You cannot walk to Tarragona, perhaps not for weeks."

"We don't have weeks," I say, through clenched teeth.

"I know. But that does not change things. For now, you must rest." I relax on the ground. The girl sighs in her sleep and snuggles against my chest. God, how did I get myself into this mess? In this deep, I should have either escaped or got myself shot by now. I almost wish I had been shot. "Sleep now," I hear the Spaniard say. "I am a surgeon. I can tend you until we can get to Tarragona. It will be well; you'll see."

I don't believe him, of course, but I am too tired to argue. I sleep.

Continue to Part Two

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